Editorial: A great cloud of witnesses cheers us on

A month of funerals echoes the great hymn to our ancestors from Sirach 44:1: "Let us now praise famous men and women." The deaths of Margaret Brennan (April 28), sister, educator and leader, and Dan Berrigan (April 30), priest, peace activist and poet, remind us how much prophets and visionaries can accomplish by being faithful. They served as torches that lighted our way through the turbulent 1960s, but then evolved with the changing landscapes of need and opportunity in the decades that followed, a time of hope and retrenchment, liberation and repression.

As these models of faith pass to their reward, we will continue to benefit from their influence as part of the "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) cheering us on. Their dreams and projects -- for women in theology, for an end to war and injustice of all kinds -- fall onto our shoulders and test our courage to stand our ground as countersigns or push the limits of systems that deny the common good. We honor them best by imitating their insight and courage in our own time.

To their number we might add Edward Hays (April 3), mystic of the prairie, who guided so many seekers through the new universe story; or Paul Philibert (April 14), whose scholarship honored the influence of Yves Congar and M-D Chenu, among the many architects of the Second Vatican Council now so resonant in Pope Francis.

Together, these deaths reveal a seamless web connecting us to their mentors, who also devoted their lives to changing the world: Madeleva Wolff, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger and so many others.

Fortunately for us, photojournalist Bob Fitch (April 29) was there to capture the setbacks and successes of the rights, peace and justice movements they helped lead.

Our litany to these extraordinary lives leads us to Psalm 90: "Teach us to know the shortness of our days, so we might gain wisdom of heart." Nostalgia, like amnesia, is the enemy of initiative. What challenges depend on us now? A new world is rising from the shell of the old and, as much as any time in history, it needs poets, artists, scholars, activists and midwives to give it shape and purpose. It has never been simple or easy.

Anne Lamott, in Traveling Mercies, tells of a Tibetan belief that "when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born -- and that this something needs for us to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible."

That something big and lovely is our future. It is our time and labor to embrace it, for out of every death springs new life.

This story appeared in the May 20-June 2, 2016 print issue under the headline: Editorial: A great cloud of witnesses cheers us on .

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